The Duke of Trahorn consented to taking the widowed and divorced Lady Elgar to be his wife as a last resort. He needs a hostess to run his keep.
Thoughts of love and family died with his accident. Because of his physical limitations he now prefers companionship to sexual need. Meeting Serena stirs emotions and physical reactions long dead.
Serena has no choice about her arranged marriage to Zane Trahorn. She hadn’t expected to be captivated by her new husband nor realize a plot to see his demise. Can she change the course of destruction set for them both?
“If a tree fell in the forest and there was nobody around to hear it, would you still bitch?” While Duke Zane Trahorn’s body language was disciplined, his voice was cruel and harsh.
“Really, Your Grace,” Serena exclaimed, surprised by his outburst. “My coach being driven off the road surely isn’t within my control.” Staring directly at him, she watched the vein over his right eye tighten. His left was covered with a black leather patch, and she didn’t dare ask why. His left arm was tied close to his body in a silken sling, his fingers flexing.
She’d been warned he was hard to deal with but was given no other choice. This was her new lot in life, and she’d accept it with as much grace as she could muster, especially under the circumstances.
“My request is not outrageous; an hour to bathe and change from my traveling dress before our wedding service seems quite within my rights. As you are aware, we’ve been traveling five days.” Her look dared him to confront her further, but he didn’t. Instead, he nodded his head to the formally attired man who stood quietly in the doorway waiting for his command.
“Don’t take any longer. I have guests waiting.”
With his order issued, Serena figured she’d been dismissed, but she couldn’t hold her tongue. And while she knew better, she didn’t hold back her words. “Then it would seem all the more important to make a favorable impression.” She stood to her full height, realizing he was one of the few men she’d met who was taller than she was.
Knowing he was watching every step, she forced an outward calm she didn’t feel inside. Their heated exchange started when she’d arrived, his brown eye openly surveying her. Allowing herself the same rude gesture, several seconds had passed before she drew a breath. He was much younger than she’d expected. The patch gave his dark hair and skin a dangerous foil. His chin was squared and solid, his lips full.
Serena realized she was wondering about kissing him. The idea was absurd; he was a total stranger to her. Just because a bargain had been struck didn’t mean he would love her or show her any true affection. Yet, deep inside, she wondered what it would be like to be touched by him.
“DeVore, see Lady Elgar to chambers and have hot water brought up.” He gave her a scathing look and added, “Satisfied?”
Serena knew better than to challenge her soon-to-be husband a second time, especially in front of his servant, so she simply smiled and nodded. “Yes, thank you.”
Turning toward the tall, balding man with a kind smile, she continued for the door, her words directed at him. “A cup of tea and my black trunk will do me nicely for now, Mr. DeVore.”
“Just DeVore,” he said, and she nodded, giving him a genuine smile. Just as she was about to leave the study, she couldn’t help herself from turning back toward the duke.
“I’ll be ready in an hour.” Watching him refill his cup, she felt her stomach roll at the idea of him being a drunkard. Sweeping the hem of her muddy gown with her right hand, she calmly left her almost-husband alone to drink himself into a stupor—she hoped. Her first impression of him wasn’t as she’d dreamed, and Serena could only assume his introduction to her wasn’t what he’d been expecting, either.
DeVore showed her up the half-round stone staircase and ushered her to the end of what seemed to be the west wing of the castle. There she met Hilda Haddock, the housekeeper.
“A nice cup of tea and a hot wash will do wonders for you, I imagine,” Hilda said by way of greeting. “Which gown would you like to wear?”
A flurry of young servants brought in buckets of hot water, filling the wooden tub at the far end of the chamber. It sat to the left of the huge fireplace, the fire warming her already.
“What is the duke’s favorite color?” Serena asked Hilda. She refrained from surveying the chamber too openly. While she wanted to run her hand along the finely carved wood bed stand, she instead stripped off her road-worn traveling cape and shoes.
“I’m not sure, my lady. He’s always favored brown and black for himself.” She was about to add something further, but didn’t.
“Then the grey one, I think.” With the door shut behind the last of the boys, she didn’t hesitate to start stripping off her traveling dress. “I do wish I had time to wash my hair, but I suppose it would take too long to dry,” she said, thinking aloud.
“We’ll give it a quick wash and you can sit before the fire for a few moments to catch your breath.”
Serena nodded, dropped the last of her underclothing, and stepped into the small tub. She dunked her head. When she surfaced, Hilda was behind her with a bar of lavender soap to help wash the dust and road dirt from her long, brown curls. In no time it was rinsed, and Hilda draped her hair outside the tub facing the fire. “There, now you sit a moment and let it dry while I pour your tea. Would you like honey?”
“No, just black, please. It smells wonderful. Why mask the taste?” she said, accepting the hot, fragrant brew. Serena settled back in the water and let Hilda rummage through her trunk for her gown and clean underclothing. After wearing the same traveling clothes for five days, she hoped never to see them again. Several times while she soaked, Hilda came and re-spread her hair before the flames, a satisfied smile on her lips.
“It’s drying nicely,” she said.
Serena’s mind was filled with too many questions for any of them to become coherent, so she asked none. Finishing her tea, she forced herself from the water, the lavender scent clinging to her skin and hair. The drying cloth Hilda handed her was softer than she’d expected, and her smile was genuine. She couldn’t know how carefully Hilda might be watching her.
Accepting help with her serviceable undergarments, she noted Hilda eyeing her and spoke before the woman could. “I know my style is probably a bit staid, but why spend so much money embroidering clothing nobody will see? It all seemed such a waste to me.”
“Good quality will last,” Hilda remarked. Her own gown was a two-piece garment in sturdy brown wool without any adornment. Serena had assumed once she was shown to a chamber, a maid would help her. Never did she expect the housekeeper to stay and act as her handmaid.
“Is there anything I should know about the guests, Hilda? Any major subjects to avoid?” Before the other woman could answer, she added, “And the duke, has he any...dislikes?” Through half-lowered lashes, she watched Hilda scurry around the room, laying out her personal items on a mirrored dressing table.
“The guests are mostly longtime friends. They all live within a day or so travel. I would think politics and religion would be deemed unsuitable for a first meeting, but that’s just my personal feelings.”
“You hesitate, Hilda. If I am to become the duchess and make the duke happy, any bits of information will be helpful.”
“I’m sure you’ll do just fine, my lady. The duke will guide you through the next days.”
That was exactly what she was afraid of; the complete unknown. And now it seemed her subconscious was letting her believe she could love him as a husband and he would one day love her. The idea was silly, and she was old enough to know better, but the inner warmth she felt each time she thought of him was disconcerting. His hard stare was meant to intimidate. Instead, it brought a challenge of wills. The idea of his large hand with long, thick fingers touching her skin made her blush hot from head to toe. It was time to move on; being late was the last thing she wanted tonight.
If things had gone as planned, they would have arrived early in the day and been wed by now. As it turned out, their delay had brought them to the duke’s castle near nightfall, leaving her no real view in the dull rainfall. Inside was warm and well kept, but she had no other inkling of what her new home looked like.
Serena let Hilda twist her hair and didn’t bother to step before the mirror when she was done. It was clean; that was what was important. Never having been one to spend hours getting ready for anything, it was a simple yet elegant gown of brushed silvery-grey silk she stepped into. Unadorned, with plain lines and straight sleeves. She wore no apron in lace or silk as was considered a sophisticated accessory. Instead, she let the lines of the gown show off her small waist. Almost with a groan, she allowed Hilda to add a simple lace collar and adjust it against her skin. Already she felt as if it choked her.
”How long have we taken?” she asked, finally moving before the looking glass, satisfied with her appearance.
“It’s almost time.”
“Then I must go, or the duke will not be pleased.” Serena didn’t hold back a small laugh, and Hilda smiled.
“Come, it won’t be so bad; soon you’ll be the Duchess of Trahorn.”
“Yes, that’s what I’m afraid of!” She laughed and finally, so did Hilda. She felt a bond building between them. While not really knowing why, the woman’s mothering ways made her feel relaxed and confident. She walked beside the housekeeper, asking the first question that came to mind. “Which is the duke’s chamber?”
When Hilda cleared her throat several times before answering, Serena knew something was amiss.
“He is in the south wing.”
“And the rest of the guests?”
“Here in the west wing,” she said, before adding, “mostly.” There was something about her tone that made Serena stop their progression and stare at the older woman. Several things went through her mind to ask, but instead she defaulted, not wanting to question Hilda just yet.
“When things settle down, will you show me the rest of the keep? I’d like to know the names of the servants and learn my way around as soon as possible.”
“Of course. DeVore will help, too. We generally don’t have much company, but with the wedding service...” Hilda glanced away. Serena felt something lacking to her description but understood not to put Hilda on the spot.
“Thank you for your help with my hair and for the tea.” They were standing at the top of the stairs, and DeVore waited at the bottom.
“Off you go. DeVore will show you in.” Hilda was gone before Serena could say anything further. When she reached the bottom of the steps, DeVore nodded his approval.
“Into the lion’s den,” she mumbled, not realizing the butler could hear her, surprised when he chuckled.
“Not quite so bad,” he replied, and after several seconds she burst out laughing. While he refrained from joining her, she saw the tilt of his lips.
Serena stood at the parlor door, listening to the conversation in the room, touching DeVore’s arm when he would have interrupted. With a nod, he took a step back, leaving her standing there alone. Scanning the room quickly, she saw ten or twelve people, but one stood out above the rest. A fair-haired woman adorned with lace and pearls, her hair so uniquely arranged Serena wondered how she stood up with the weight. But her cold blue eyes gave Serena a chill.
Having no idea who the woman was, Serena got a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach as she watched the woman’s slim hand stroke Zane’s right arm. It was a possessive move.
“Got yourself a brazen little chit, hey, Zane?” The voice was deep but with humor. Unfortunately, the door blocked her view, so she couldn’t see its owner.
“Most likely the journey was disconcerting.” Zane’s voice was strong, and she realized he was defending her in his own sparse way.
“Let’s hope so, for your sake!” another voice added, and Serena steadied herself to make an entrance. Just as she was about to, the other woman spoke.
“Leave him alone. Can’t you see he’s nervous about the marriage? It’s not too late to send her back, you know. Why you think you must marry now is beyond me.” The woman’s voice held malice, and Serena thought of her half-brother.